The Nanotechnology Research Center of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in Cincinnati coordinates a program of laboratory and field investigation of practices and recommendations for safe handling of nanoscale materials such as graphene, clay, silica, and carbon. In plastics, compounding operations are thought to hold the main potential for worker exposure to nanomaterials. Once these have been incorporated into plastics or composites, inhalation exposure is not likely unless the composite is then altered by drilling, sanding, or cutting. (For more information, see “Approaches to Safe Nanotechnology,” www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2009-125).
Laboratory animal research indicates that some types of nanoparticles can cause inflammation and fibrosis in the lung, while some particles can penetrate the lung and move to other bodily organs. The significance of such “translocation” of nanoparticles is not yet known and is being researched. Recent preliminary studies in animals reportedly indicate that certain types of multiwall carbon nanotubes can act in concert with known carcinogens to significantly increase the potential of tumor formation.
As part of its nanotechnology research, NIOSH has created a field studies team that aims to establish partnerships with companies that produce or use engineered nanomaterials in order to expand and share knowledge of appropriate health and safety practices. The voluntary nature of the collaboration is a key feature. It provides opportunities for on-site investigations by the NIOSH team to assess potential occupational exposure to nanomaterials and to evaluate methods to minimize exposure. Partner companies could benefit from this occupational-exposure characterization and control-technology assessment at no cost. Such collaboration also expands the knowledge base that benefits the industry as a whole. For further information about partnering with NIOSH and good guidelines for handling engineered nanomaterials, visit the NIOSH nanotechnology topic page at www.gov/niosh/topics/nanotech or call (513) 533-8250.